When New Leaders enter an organization, or advance by way of internal promotion, they often inherit a team to lead. Undoubtedly, stepping in as the New Leader can create a wave of concern – and even fear – among direct reports. Let’s face it, in the current business climate, it’s not unusual to see a new CEO or VP “clean house” and start over with a hand-picked team (often people already known to the New Leader). But is this personnel chess game really the best course of action?
While navigating through the onboarding process, New Leaders may need to address concerns about their assigned teams. Three typical approaches are:
- The wait-and-see method – studying how team members react to the New Leader's direction.
- Active involvement – connecting with team members, asking them about the organization, their internal partners, career aspirations and their opinions of current operations.
- The trade-out approach – rapidly replacing most or all of the individuals on the team.
Sizing Up: Know Your Team Before Making Any Moves
So, which tactic is most effective? To answer this, New Leaders must make a conscientious effort to accurately size up their teams. With our clients we promote the active-involvement approach, and suggest these 9 steps:
- Communicate that they have been hired to maintain operations and generate results.
- Paint a powerful picture of the future that doesn't denigrate past efforts.
- Reassure team members that they are all invited to be part of the future, and invite them for the journey.
- Determine the capability and capacity of team members individually, and as a whole.
- Match up the organizational needs with what is available on the team – analyze strengths and gaps.
- Research the organization’s culture and its existing expectations about developing or replacing team members.
- Get advice from trusted colleagues (but avoid acting solely on another’s perceptions).
- Determine the financial and operational impact of keeping or changing the team.
- Gain support for decisions made about the team.
If told by others that their team is low-performing, New Leaders can be tempted to choose the trade-out approach. An organization may even “suggest” such a move, and request that it be done quickly. However, without examining these situations closely, the results can be costly -- on both financial and personal levels. New Leaders confronted with this dilemma should consider the following questions:
- Why is the team perceived as low-performing?
- Does the organizational structure support effective performance?
- Does the team have access to the needed tools, knowledge, feedback, and training?
- Has the team experienced multiple leadership changes (or even long gaps without a leader) over a significant period of time?
- Have their prior leaders explained and clarified performance expectations?
- Are there any documented issues related to individual or team integrity?
Investing In: Is it a Risk or Reward?
Taking time to answer the above questions can help New Leaders determine if performance issues emanate from the members of the team themselves, or if factors outside of their influence are the root cause of low performance. If it is the latter, then replacing the team will not improve effectiveness. In fact, the time and knowledge lost are likely to cost far more than the benefits offered by trade-outs. Knowing this, New Leaders can then focus on the best path for results – altering the structure and context in which they work.
Once New Leaders decide to invest in their current teams, they can start by creating or strengthening alignment. They also need to believe that they can make a significant positive impact on their existing teams’ performance, and identify behaviors that will lead to needed improvements. New Leaders can advocate for needed resources, define the work, distribute tasks in ways that make sense, and demonstrate that they value the team’s performance.
When New Leaders define the context for their teams' goals and explain expectations, they can work together more fluidly. New Leaders who foster a climate of transparency and open communication are better-equipped to build unity. Such cohesion is only possible through dialogue; and this process may require addressing and resolving past or present conflict.
Trading Out: When is it Necessary?
A new atmosphere of clarity and alignment is likely to expose poor performance by team members who are not on track with agreed-upon goals. These are often the people who display rigid resistance to needed changes. They may state how things “should” operate, or “how we used to do things around here,” not realizing that those methods may have been unproductive. These inflexible members of the team may (knowingly or inadvertently) hinder progress. Certainly, some do come around. But once New Leaders offer a fair number of attempts to gain team member buy-in and receive only opposition, a trade-out may need to be considered.
Removing someone from the team doesn't always require that this team member also leave the organization. It does mean, however, that this member has skills or behaviors that no longer synchronize with the needs of the team. Successful New Leaders help these team members see this misalignment for themselves, and then support them in finding other suitable opportunities, whether internal or external.
It Comes Down to Effort
Addressing a team’s viability is just one aspect in the multi-faceted onboarding process. How the New Leader approaches decisions about an inherited team can lead to either early success or delayed disaster. New Leaders should use caution when Hiring Managers disclose with them that the team "must go." Taking the active-involvement approach by evaluating, interacting and understanding the people (and the organization) will make a positive impact, strengthen the team, save valuable time and prevent disruption.